UK political theorist, analyst, and novelist Sean Gabb analyzes the possible motives behind the coronavirus lockdowns, the government’s selective enforcement, the public’s reactions, and what it all means for people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Piers Corbyn, I will explain for my overseas readers, is the elder brother of UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. He has so far been most notable for his disbelief in the “climate change” propaganda and for his desire to leave the European Union. As might be expected, he is also a firm civil libertarian.
On Saturday August 29, Piers Corbyn presided over a demonstration in Trafalgar Square against the laws brought in to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This demonstration was attended by thousands of people, and one of the speakers was David Icke, once a football player, then a sports presenter on television—nowadays the most resolute and entertaining advocate of the shape-shifting lizard theory of ruling class misbehaviour. According to The Health Protection Regulations 2020, it is, or may be, a criminal offence to organise a gathering of more than thirty people. Mr. Corbyn was arrested at the end of his demonstration. The following day, without any pretense of due process, he was fined £10,000.
This is, of course, a most scandalous act by the authorities. Fixed penalties of any kind are inconsistent with even the pretence of a free constitution. In this case, Mr. Corbyn has been chosen for punishment, when the organisers of much larger and plainly violent demonstrations have been left alone. The content of the speeches given at the demonstration are beside the point—so too the alleged opinions of those attending. I will repeat that fixed penalties are a legal abomination. So is the selective enforcement of any law.
This, however, is all I have to say in favour of Messrs Corbyn and Icke. I will ignore the newspaper coverage of the demonstration. Newspapers tell the truth either by accident, or as evidence against the claim that they print nothing but lies. Even then, they rarely give the whole truth. But I have looked at the YouTube videos of the speeches. The consensus at the demonstration appears to have been that the coronavirus is some kind of fraud, and that the laws to stop its spread are really intended to carry us into a nightmarish New World Order tyranny.
I disagree with this view. I believe instead that, looking back from one or two years, the Coronavirus Panic will be seen as a disaster for at least the British ruling class, and as somewhere between a blessing and nothing very bad for the majority of everyone else.
For the avoidance of doubt, I have no belief in the goodness of our ruling class. The Labour Party represents a new and hegemonic Establishment. The project of this Establishment is to bring about changes that are meant to be fatal to the traditional peoples of my country, and that will not be to the advantage of the groups they are supposed to raise up.
Whether this project is evil or deluded is beside my present point, though it is probably something of both.
There are two possible views of the Conservative Party. It may be worth supporting because, though willing to see it roll forward of its own momentum, the leaders do not want to hurry the project forward, but are mainly interested in personal enrichment. Or it may be a Potemkin opposition—gathering votes from the discontented while self-consciously making sure those votes are wasted. Again, the exact truth is beside my present point. What does matter is that we go into every election less free and less at home in our country than at the previous election.
This being admitted, there is a loose connection between me and the speakers and attendees at Mr. Corbyn’s demonstration. At the same time, there is a difference between cynicism and paranoia. As a cynic, I do not believe that everything untoward that happens is there to hurry the project of change. I do not believe that our ruling class is in charge of everything. I do not believe that it understands everything. Whatever its origin, the coronavirus appears to have driven our various rulers into a genuine panic.
Yes, Boris Johnson is a fool, and there is an army of the powerful who wanted an excuse to stop our final departure from the European Union. Yes, the Democrats were looking to upstage Donald Trump in time for the next American election. But this has not been a panic in just two countries. The Japanese cancelled their Olympic Games, losing them for the second time in eighty years. The Chinese brought four decades of economic growth to an end. The Indians and South Africans panicked. So did most of the Europeans.
The panic was joined by ruling classes with no visible interest in putting the dreams of the Frankfurt School into practice.
Focusing on my own country, what ruling-class institution has benefitted from the Coronavirus Panic? Look beyond the propaganda, and it is plain that the response of the National Health Service was a disgrace. Myriads of diagnoses and treatments were cancelled without good reason. We still have no dentistry. The public sector as a whole went on paid leave for six months. The schools closed and the teachers vanished—no great loss there, of course. Even if none goes bankrupt, dozens of universities will need to downsize—no loss there either. The police behaved throughout like fascist goons.
Every institution set up or adapted to advance the project of change has emerged from the past six months revealed as broken and covered in ridicule. What sort of a planned crisis is it that ends in magnified cynicism and in paranoia that can fill Trafalgar Square on a bank holiday weekend? The general mood in this country is approaching what you see at the end of a lost war.
Or what associated commercial interests have benefitted? The politicized entertainment media is flat on its back. The commercial property sector is entering a meltdown. House prices in all the nice parts of London are going into a downward spiral. Public finances will be squeezed for years to come, and, given a choice between projects of change and a liveable dole, the electors are likely to make their wishes undeniable. Globalized patterns of trade have been disrupted, raising question marks over all the presiding global institutions. The last thing financial services needed was another big shock.
As for the commercial beneficiaries, these are libertarian by default. For all that can be said against them, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have opened the media to anyone who knows how to use a computer keyboard. Their turn to corporate censorship has, at every step, been a response to outside pressure. Every one of these turns has been half-hearted and driven by a natural, if not always creditable, desire to continue growing richer. There is no particular benefit for the American and British ruling classes if Mr. Bezos becomes a trillionaire and Richard Branson ceases to be a billionaire.
The coronavirus was an external shock to a system that was not inevitably winning but that had a fair chance of winning. The most reasonable narrative is that our ruling class believed for about a month that the coronavirus was another Spanish flu, and did everything possible to make us share the panic. After that, the lockdown was continued another few months in order to save face. Since then, all effort has gone into restoring the system as it was last March. The schools have been reopened in the face of public resistance. People are being nagged to stop working from home. Compulsory face masks are not an attempt to humiliate us, but a desperate shift to assure us it is safe to go back to the old ways.
And the truth of the past few months is that many of us do not want to go back to the old ways. Until March, we were a nation of fully employed drones. People got up in the morning. They squeezed themselves onto filthy and overcrowded public transport. They completed their journey to work past shops that might once have contained things worth looking at but were now filled with sorry-looking vegetables that have no name in English or with pale and shapeless ornaments too expensive to be given price tags. At work, they were monitored by increasingly intrusive bureaucracies of control and occasionally lectured on the supreme wickedness of their ancestors.
The lockdown was an unexpected break from this. Work still had to be done, but it was work on better terms. Since then, continued social distancing has given ordinary people the best means to control their working lives since the destruction of the trades union movement in the 1980s.
I speak with many children. None of them regrets the six-month holiday from school. Some are hoping for a “second wave” in the autumn, followed by another closure of the schools. If for their own reasons, few of the parents disagree. One I spoke with a few days ago was emphatic that if, he was praying for a return of the coronavirus or for a very big seasonal flu, his real hope was for the Islamic State people to stop blowing up children at pop concerts and to start threatening to release anthrax on the London Underground—anything to continue the new heaven of working remotely.
No doubt, there are true believers in what we were told last March. You see them shuffling about the streets with scared eyes above their facemasks. No doubt, there are slackers, especially in the public sector. But there is a growing realisation that the coronavirus has let us jump over another decade of transition into the new economy made possible by information technology. This will be an economy where much work has retreated behind the closed doors of the home, where people are self-employed or shift between one employer and another, where they are judged more by what they contribute than by how they comply.
This will have political consequences. Indeed, the rioting and hysterical political correctness of the past two months may reflect a perceived waning of hegemony by the ruling class.
Speaking for myself, I took a big financial hit at the beginning of the lockdown. With no examinations to sit, all my private students vanished like a flock of frightened birds. I lost two valuable contracts and all my Easter revision courses. One of my publishers went out of business, and I shall never see the royalties I was owed.
After that, first individual students, then whole classes, began drifting in from all over the world. August was my busiest teaching month in years. September has seen a flood of business, mostly from abroad. I am reaching the point where I must take no new work or raise my prices. I had spent years building my commercial website and promoting it, with limited results. All of a sudden, that side of my business has taken off. I hope and expect the rise to continue.
I am not particularly entrepreneurial, and I doubt if my experience is unusual. I am coming out of the lockdown better off in every sense that matters than I went into it.
This is not to say that the lockdown has been a pure benefit. Yes, I can sneer at theatres and “comedy” clubs that have so far done well from staging trashy agitprop. Their loss will certainly be our benefit. But there are many honest small businesses that have been killed by the restrictions. Many others that have survived are now on the point of going under because of the continuing uncertainty of government policy. Boris Johnson has begun talking of a 10 p.m. curfew. This would finish off many restaurants and pubs.
Just because none of this affects me or my friends is no reason for complacency. None of it, however, needs any conspiracy theory as explanation. There are bureaucratic and commercial interests that benefit from even the most lunatic measures. Given that the government ministers have limited control over the administrative machinery and are probably not bright enough to take more control than they have, we should expect to see an overall confusion of policy.
Here, I should say that, had it been as dangerous as I accept the authorities thought it was, the measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus would have been wholly justified. Perhaps the authorities should have known better, or perhaps they were told something that has not been handed on to us. It was not, after all, that dangerous, and the ministers should, if they had any competence, be refusing to consider further restrictions, especially those that hinder the emergence of the new economy I have mentioned. But nothing I have seen requires an overarching and sinister conspiracy theory to explain it.
All this being said, I admire the eloquence of the speeches given in Trafalgar Square. I sympathize with the anger of the assembled crowd. I denounce the treatment of Mr. Corbyn. But I have no time for the apocalyptic despair of that demonstration. The coronavirus is the nearest I have personally seen to the Hand of God in human affairs. It is the equivalent of the Protestant Wind that saved us in 1588 and 1688.
The task for us now is to build on the chance that has unexpectedly been granted us.
[Originally published at Sean Gabb’s website. Republished with permission.]